If college is supposed to help prepare you for employment, then why do so many people graduate with no clue what they want to do or how to get there?
Rather than arming you with the tools to create infinite possibilities for yourself, college presents you with a finite application of the knowledge you accumulate. The modern education system is flawed: it teaches you to box yourself into your major, take the required coursework, and do well on assignments that test memorization rather than critical thinking and understanding. Don’t get me wrong, this type of learning is crucial for accountants, doctors, lawyers, and other highly specified professions, but for the rest of us, college is a 4-year lesson on fitting into a box.
The key to creating limitless possibilities for yourself all lies within the relationships you build and the transferable knowledge you accumulate. Professional relationships help open doors to opportunities, and transferable knowledge—skills like adaptability, organization, communication, critical thinking—will make you an irreplaceable asset.
What college should be teaching is how to map out your future, discover opportunities that will build upon your knowledge base, and create relationships that expand your network. These are the building blocks of professional success, and better yet, they’re transferable.
First, The Inner Work & The Hard Planning Work
Developing a long-term vision for yourself doesn’t have to be as daunting as it sounds.
Think of it like you’re going on a flight. To figure out what time you have to leave the house, you work backward. Starting at your boarding time, you estimate how long it’ll take to get through security, check your bags, find parking, and drive to the airport. By working backward, you can figure out what time you have to leave your house to catch your flight. When you start at the end, you’re able to plan for the beginning.
The “end” in this case, is what you want your life to look like in 10, 20, or 30 years.
Do you want to be in charge of a team, or be working independently? What kind of field do you see yourself in? Where do you want to live? Do you want to have a family?
There are many names for the answers to these questions: life’s purpose, your ideal future or end goal, etc. You’re not bound to these answers by any means, since they’ll likely morph and adapt as time goes on and priorities change. Still, it’s a good jumping-off point. As a business mentor once told me five years ago, he said “you need a roadmap for your business, and realize it will not look like the plan when you first started.”
With your ideal future in mind, remember that everything you do going forward is an extension of that dream; every action you take—or don’t take—moves you closer to actualizing that imagined future. All the jobs you have, people you meet, and experiences you live will add up to reaching your goal.
Your dream future is deeply intertwined with the unique aspects of your experiences, desires, and identity; therefore, do not compare other people’s purposes. Your purpose won’t look anything like your friends’ or your siblings’ or your parents’. The only common ground is the ownership we have over our own futures.
We each hold the power to design our lives around our purpose so we can live with intentionality to reach our dream futures.
How Did I Think About This?
Everybody’s journey is going to look different– your personality, environment, and lived experiences uniquely influence how you want to design your future.
For me, I knew by the end of high school that I wanted a few things for myself:
- To run a business and be able to continually invest in my creativity and dreams
- To be healthy
- To be financially independent
- To learn new things and take on new experiences
- To have a family for myself
Since I had a general understanding of what I wanted my life to look like, I could work backward. For me, this meant putting the right people in my corner that would help me reach these goals, and going after experiences that would put me closer to my ideal future.
Just because I have been able to make strong advances in a few key focus areas doesn’t mean I have it figured out. I sometimes still experience doubt, anxiety, and the feeling of being lost. In these moments, though, I take a good look at the large-scale map of where I want to end up, and I’m able to ground myself in realigning my course to propel me forward.
As a young professional audience, how do you live intentionally to create transferable skills and relationships in a professional setting?
Like I said in my airport analogy, you have to plot your endpoint before you can start. The first step is picking a data point of a professional lifestyle that you want to emulate.
Let’s say you want to work at the intersection of health and technology. You always had an interest and passion for health, and you were inspired by innovations that helped improve performance. Once you’ve picked that end-point, start working backwards. What are the different jobs in this space that could help you learn and develop critical skills?
Think outside the box, and think flexibly.
When we’re young, we tend to box ourselves in and think in narrow professional terms like “engineer,” “doctor,” “entrepreneur,” and so on. A rigid framework like this won’t do you any favors—remember, your roles and titles can (and most likely will) change while you’re pursuing your goals. By staying flexible and nimble, you’ll be able to build skills and relationships outside of your current role, allowing you to move toward your long-term goals.
Lastly, this understanding of yourself allows you to lean into discomfort more because the only thing constant in life is change, and understanding how to navigate it in your career becomes very important. Secondly, comes understanding how to transfer the relationships, skills, and knowledge from one environment to the next that will enable you to create leverage for your own life around the areas you care most about.
A quick refresher
- By asking yourself the hard questions like what you really care about and want out of life, it’s much easier to find the right opportunities and relationships that’ll help you reach your goal. You’ll feel grounded and secure in what you’re doing rather than constantly seeking out the next opportunity.
- Most people try to secure external factors first, like the big, name-recognizable resume experiences. With this method, you’ll be looking for a new job every 2-3 years and constantly reorienting yourself to reach a hastily thought-out vision.
And what if I want to change what I’m doing/lose touch in my industry?
Remember, you’re never locked into a job, role, career, or field. If you want to change what you’re doing, change it! Don’t get caught up in feeling like you “wasted” your time or energy on a job, role, or industry that didn’t pan out. All that effort isn’t a waste, it’s an experience you learned from and can carry to the next.
You took the time to invest in your interests, meet people who were interesting, and build skills that can transcend the job and industry you’re in. They’re called transferable skills for a reason: you can transfer these skills and relationships wherever you end up next.
Your Path is as Singular as Your Fingerprint or DNA
There is a ton of pressure on young people to find shiny, big opportunities and work themselves to the bone to do well. Performing well at your job is important, don’t get me wrong, but building the skill sets to find the right opportunities and create meaningful relationships is just as critical, if not more.
Success in a job is short term, and you should always be thinking about the long term: where you want to end up, why you want to end up there, who can help you reach that goal, and what the necessary steps and skills are to thrive along the way.
Defining your ideal future isn’t boxing yourself into a role, industry, or job. It allows you to take concrete steps to build the skills and network that will move you closer to your goal. If that goal changes, the skills, and relationships can be transferred and applied. The time and energy you spend is an investment in your future, no matter what it looks like.
To make your goal a reality, you’re going to have to do some introspection and long-term thinking. It might be uncomfortable at first since you were set up at an early age to think of jobs and success in black-and-white terms. But once you start on your individualized path, that discomfort will transform into an assuredness and security that college definitely didn’t teach you.